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Oklahoma comp reforms likely as bills flood legislature

Comp bills

The Oklahoma Legislature convened its latest session Monday with 25-and-counting workers compensation bills on its plate as of Tuesday, prompting observers to take note.

It’s a sign, experts say, that some changes to the state’s comp system are likely — but that a massive overhaul like the one enacted in 2014 is not in the cards.

“We are obviously very concerned about changes to the system … (but) we understand that there will be tweaks to the system,” said Fred Morgan, president and CEO of the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce, commenting on the number of bills.

“There are a lot of bills,” said Bob Burke, an Oklahoma City-based attorney who represents injured workers and former state secretary of commerce who has helped draft legislation in the past.

“Most of those bills are shell bills,” he said, referring to bills that are introduced with a later goal of amending the language with more substantive changes. Nothing is likely to pass as-is, he added.

On the table are bills that address cash benefits for injured workers, compensability for workers using marijuana without a medical marijuana card, post-traumatic stress disorder benefits for first responders, the balance limits on the state’s Self-insurance Guaranty Fund, fee schedules for medical providers and more. Some bills focus on administrative changes, such as modifying definitions under the state’s comp laws.

Likely, there will be “nothing that is not an agreed-to (and) negotiated bill” addressing competing political agendas to improve benefits for injured workers and to protect the interests of businesses, said Joe Woods, Austin, Texas-based vice president of state government relations for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.

And with the volume of bills and months of negotiations ahead, “there is a good chance that no major work comp bill will pass in Oklahoma,” said Mr. Woods.

Yet some of the measures would resolve issues with reforms enacted in 2014, according to Mr. Burke.

Increasing payments to both injured workers and providers — benefits and costs that were overhauled in 2014 — are likely, experts said.

“That’s something we need to look at,” said Mr. Morgan, cautioning that fee schedule increases were weighed in 2018 with the Oklahoma Workers Compensation Commission finding that “no increase was necessary.”

Increasing indemnity payments for injured workers, which the reforms cut by 36.4% between 2012 and 2016, according to data compiled in 2018 by the Washington-based National Academy of Social Insurance, is also proposed.

The 2014 “legislation has given Oklahoma the lowest workers comp benefits in the country, and there is certainly a hope that there would at least be a reasonable increase (but) not nearly to the level where they were,” said Mr. Burke, adding that he would like to see a 15% to 20% increase in cash benefits.

Another issue to be addressed is the extension of the “Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Court of Existing Claims,” which handles claims from injuries that were filed before the 2014 reforms, he said. The legislature at the time mandated that the court hear old law claims before an approaching July 1, 2020, deadline.

Because the Oklahoma Supreme Court “has unanimously ruled that the new workers comp commission cannot ever have jurisdiction of old law claims,” that deadline is due for an extension for “at least eight years,” said Mr. Burke, who estimates that there is a backlog of some 78,000 open files of old-law cases pending.

“Until those claims are gone, the (old court) will have to exist,” he said.